The Moscow Olympics are remembered for many things, but mostly for the boycott of the Games. Led by the United States, more than 45 nations boycotted the Games in protest of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. In the end, 80 nations – a third less than in Munich eight years earlier – competed. Australia did compete, though many athletes chose – or were pressured – not to attend.
Not surprisingly because of the absences, the Soviet Union dominated the medals. The USSR won 87 gold medals, the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) 47, and Bulgaria in third place won eight gold – less than a tenth of the total of victories of the Soviet team. In fact, excluding the East Germans, the Host Nation won more gold medals than the combined totals of the other 78 teams competing.
Other memorable aspects of the 1980 Games was the catchy song, 'Moscow', by a band named Ghengis Khan. There was Misha the Bear, one of the Games’ most loved mascots. There was great athletics action, led by Ethiopia’s Miruts ‘Yifter the Shifter’ Yifter, winner of the 5000m and 10,000m, and British gold medallists Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett, Allan Wells and Daley Thompson.
In gymnastics, Romania’s Nadia Comaneci returned to the Games, but could not repeat her stunning 1976 form. She did, however, win two gold and two silver medals. The best performed gymnast was the Soviet Union’s Aleksandr Dityatin, who won three gold, four silver and a bronze, becoming the first person to win eight medals at a Games. He also became the first man to score a perfect 10.00 in Olympic competition. His teammate, Victor Adrianov, retired after Moscow. He won 15 medals at his three Olympic appearances, more than any other man at the time.
Australia at these Games
The lead-up to the Moscow Olympics could not have been worse for Australian athletes. There was intense pressure from the national government and many sporting administrators and commentators to boycott the Games. Ultimately, the AOC decided in a split vote to attend the Games, but some sport federations and athletes were pressured into boycotting the Games of their own volition. Many chose to stay at home, including such likely medallists as champion swimmer Tracey Wickham, sprinter Raelene Boyle and Australia’s strong equestrian, hockey and sailing squads. It was a sad time, with the onus on young athletes to do the dirty work of politicians. Many sporting careers, most notably Wickham’s, were cruelly affected by the events of 1980.
In protest of the Afghanistan invasion, Australia did not march behind the national flag in the Opening Ceremony. Instead, Australia's joint flagbearers Denise Boyd (athletics) and Max Metzker (swimming), carried the Olympic flag. A team of 122 athletes attended the Games, 93 men and 29 women. Months earlier, a team of 204 athletes had been approved before boycott talks began. Kayaker John Sumegi, who became the first Australian to win an individual canoe/kayak medal at the Games, carried the flag in the Closing Ceremony.
Australia won nine medals in Moscow: two gold, two silver and five bronze. Both gold medals were won in swimming. The win by the men’s 4x100m medley relay team of Neil Brooks, Peter Evans, Mark Kerry and Mark Tonelli was the first gold for Australia since 1972. A few days later, Michelle Ford won gold in the women’s 800m freestyle. This remains a remarkable victory – 18-year-old Ford triumphing over the dubious “might” of the now-discredited East German swimming machine.
Only two medals were won away from the swimming pool, both of them silver: canoe/kayak’s Sumegi in the K1 500m and Rick Mitchell in the 400m on the track. As well as Ford, the other four bronze medallists were swimmers Graeme Brewer (200m freestyle), Max Metzker (1500m freestyle), and relay gold medallists Mark Kerry (200m backstroke) and Peter Evans (100m breaststroke).
Other performances of note included diver Valerie McFarlane, who became the first Australian to reach the finals of both the 3m springboard and 10m platform events. She placed sixth and seventh respectively. Archer Terri Donovan placed ninth in the women’s event, the first Australian to finish in the top ten in archery competition. Popular champion Robert de Castella was 10th in the first of his four Olympic marathons.